Mighty, politically well-connected oligarchs are in the mood for retail therapy, and their targets are media outlets. Their influence over journalism has begun to reach worrying levels.
Jack Ma of Chinese giant Alibaba, Rupert Murdoch of News Corp, Delyan Peevski from the tobacco maker Bulgartabak, Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris and Saudi prince Al-Waleed are all completely different businessmen. They look totally unalike and live in different places. One is obese, another one is skinny. One hails from Sofia, another one from Cairo. Their tastes are dissimilar.
But they also have some things in common: an unwonted wealth, close links with political power and a firm grip on much of the world’s media.
The issue of ownership concentration in the media is not new. It goes back to the 1980s and 1990s when some of the now old media moguls began to build their holdings. The rise of disrupting internet behemoths in the past decade or so was expected to dent into their power. It didn’t.
In cahoots with ruling political powers, oligarchs have, in the last decade, vastly expanded their control on media industries all over the world, according to a recent report from Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a Paris-based press freedom NGO.
RSF speaks about “the takeover of entire media groups or even entire media landscapes by ‘oligarchs,’ extremely wealthy individuals whose interest in journalism is secondary to the defense of their personal interests.” They are in a shopping spree to take over media groups simply to “extend the scope of their own influence or the influence of their friends.”
Authorities and Oligarchs: A Love Affair
The RSF study features a hodgepodge of media mogul types. These oligarchs are piling up media assets at a brisk pace. In one category we have countries such as Turkey, China, Russia or India where media empires are being built up with the authorities’ blessing. In Turkey, Ferit F. Sahenk, a chum of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, added in 2012 the prestigious daily Milliyet to his media portfolio that also includes Haberturk TV and Haberturk newspaper. Last year, the worldly entrepreneur Jack Ma, founder of China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba, took over Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, a newspaper critical of the Beijing government.
In another category, RSF places media owners who are directly involved in politics. Silvio Berlusconi, formerly premier of Italy, epitomized that type of owner.
But Italy is not the sole example. Head of a family owned group with interests in the arms industry and a senator since 2004, Serge Dassault has been at the helm of the Socpresse group for more than a decade. Socpresse publishes the leading French daily Le Figaro. In Bulgaria, MP Delyan Peevski owns a slew of tabloid newspapers, websites and TV channels. Saudi prince Al-Waleed runs the pan-Arab TV station TV Al Arab and has shares in a string of media companies ranging from the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. In Morocco, the industry minister Moulay Hafid Elalamy controls the financial daily Les Inspirations Eco and the prestigious French-language monthly Zamane.
A Ubiquitous Species
The oligarch-controlled media operations are only a small part of larger conglomerates. For many of them, media is not a lucrative business. But it’s that good-to-have influence-building business that is often financed through other, profitable, operations.
In July last year, the Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris purchased Euronews, an all-news TV channel covering Europe. Mr Sawiris is also the head of Egypt’s largest telco, Orascom, company that is invested in a raft of other industries, including gold mining, hotels and construction. In Euronews, he shares ownership with public service broadcasters such as France Televisions, Italy’s RAI and Belgium’s RTBF. The station also receives cash from the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm.
In Greece, a handful of families who have controlled the economy for almost five decades also have stakes in the country’s media. The Bobolas family, for example, owns the largest Greek constructor by revenues, Ellaktor, but also a large portfolio of media outlets. They include five dailies, some 15 magazines, websites and the TV channel Mega. The Crete-based Vardinogiannis family with ownership in major local refineries, also owns the Star TV station, radio channels and magazines. Bulgarian media tycoon Peevski is also owner of the largest tobacco maker in eastern Europe, Bulgartabak, which sells much of its production on markets in the Middle East.
The growing influence of oligarchs and their groups of interest in the media is worrisome for independent journalism. Examples of pressures on journalists not to critically cover issues that can affect one of the oligarchs’ friends in business or politics are plentiful - but nothing changes.
Attempts to regulate them fail in parliaments. Even when antitrust rules are in place, enforcement of such provisions is patchy. In some countries, media tycoons hide their ownership traces. In others, they overtly boast their power and influence.
To respond to this wad of concerns, RSF is launching the Save Journalistic Independence Campaign aimed at improving the balance in media ownership through monitoring and advocacy. It proposes to push this issue to the agenda of major international powwows such as the G8 governmental political forum of major industrialized nations, the G20 summit of governments and central banks from 20 major economies, and the World Economic Forum in Davos, a meeting of the world’s top political and business leaders.
Changing the world of news and information is a long-term job, RSF says in its study. It has already taken the enormous and lengthy combined efforts of journalists, experts, activists, even businessmen and some progressive regulators to come as far as they have.
But not much has improved. A stronger, better targeted, more united and inclusive effort is probably needed for such a large undertaking.